Our Plan: What Alberta's Facing
There have been several high profile natural disasters in Alberta over the last decade: the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, the 2013 Calgary/Alberta floods, the 2012 Calgary hail storm ($552 million in damage), and the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire to name but a few. These events are not necessarily caused by climate change individually, but their increasing likelihood is indeed a symptom of climate change. Crucial in debating climate change policy is the need to make a distinction between any individual event being directly a result of climate change and climate change as a far more macro level phenomenon. Climate change makes natural disasters more likely but doesn’t necessarily cause any particular event.
Regardless of cause, the 4 events outlined above highlight the increasingly volatile Alberta we are living in and beg the question as to what might happen going forward. Edmonton and Calgary are both highly susceptible to floods given the dense settlement close to their respective rivers and poor drainage in many areas. In Calgary, in May 2017, flood prep kits were handed out to residents in the Mission area, highlighting the high level of risk. In Edmonton, many neighbourhoods received a low grade in flood preparedness which is dangerous given that we are now seeing once every 50/100 year storms happen once every 4 years or less. Edmonton received a grade of “C” for Flood preparedness recently which demands response.
A key point in flood risk is that communities may be at risk regardless of river proximity. While those by the river are obviously most at risk, those in higher elevation areas could face risks if community drainage is not up to par. This must be noted to ensure that people are not lulled into false states of comfort. Indeed, Edmonton had major floods in 2012, 2014, and 2016. In Alberta, in just 2017 alone, intense wind storms and rainfall have led to power outages and property damage. Power outages also incur other costs such as spoiled goods, loss of productive inputs, and lost sales if affecting businesses. The 2016 Edmonton Whitemud floods that saw 67mm of rain pour down in an afternoon are supposed to be highly rare, but that rarity is falling fast.
Across Alberta, municipalities are threatened by potential floods. Many towns/cities are built around bodies of water and if intense downpour like that affecting the Whitemud were to strike, property could be damaged and most importantly, lives could be threatened. Sylvan Lake, Slave Lake, Athabasca, Edmonton, Calgary, Lac La Biche, Cold Lake, Fort MacMurray, Red Deer, Lethbridge, and more are all situated on or around major bodies of water that put them at risk. Of course, most cities are located near a major body of water, this makes sense given that water is a fundamental need for humans and human society. Early settlers set up their home base on these bodies of water for that very reason. We need to recognize that the life-giving gifts that are our rivers and lakes can also put our lives in harm’s way.
These events represent just the tip of the iceberg for climate change and its effects. The following has been taken directly from the Government of Alberta’s website, it is an outline of what climate change could do to Alberta in the future:
Climate change may lead to negative impacts on agriculture production (crop yields) and financial loss, livestock production and farming infrastructure, from increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events and long-term impacts of climate change.
Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
Climate change is expected to impact:
the current level, mix and geographic distribution of biodiversity, such as Alberta’s native species and ecosystems.
various ecosystem services and benefits, including clean water, crop pollination and recreational opportunities.
Climate change could affect energy supplies by:
disrupting energy generation and supply during extreme weather events
increased stress on transmission infrastructure
increasing demand on electrical generation (additional loads created by cooling requirements)
Extreme Weather Events
Certain types of extreme weather events may increase in frequency and/or intensity:
heavy precipitation with associated increased risk of flooding
individual severe storms
Warmer temperatures and reduced soil moisture create conditions for:
continued mountain pine beetle infestations
grasslands displacing existing forest ecosystems
greater incidence of forest fires
Infrastructure (such as buildings, roads, bridges, pipelines and electricity transmission) is generally sensitive to gradual changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. Extreme weather events can easily overwhelm the capacity of infrastructure.
Recent trends and future projections for water resources include:
loss of water stored as ice and snow will affect the timing and level of water flows in major river basins
lower summer stream flows, falling lake levels, and retreating glaciers
net result of less surface water and soil moisture, as well as greater variations in soil moisture from season-to-season and year-to-year
Financial and Insurance Implications
The costs of adapting today result in avoidance of damages – and therefore avoided costs. According to the United Nations Development Programme, from a global perspective it is estimated that every dollar spent today on adaptation results in $7 saved in emergency response.
between 1983 and 2008, Alberta averaged around $100 million a year in catastrophic losses due to extreme events (hail storms, wildfire, flooding, etc.). This value increased substantially starting in 2009.
Alberta averaged $673 million a year in insured losses from extreme weather events from 2009 to 2012.
according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, Alberta has experienced the 2 most costly disasters in the country's history with the Fort McMurray wildfires at $3.58 billion and the 2013 southern Alberta floods at $1.7 billion.
This information has been compiled directly by the Government of Alberta, an indication of how serious the threat of climate change is to our great province. While the two fires in 2011 and 2016 were both suspected to be human caused (arson or error), their impacts were far greater because of unusually dry seasons in addition to much heavier winds than usual. So, once again, while this can’t be entirely blamed on climate change it is a clear symptom of climate change and events like these are much more likely as GHG’s concentrate in our atmosphere.
Adapting to this these ever growing risks requires the synchronization of municipal initiatives with provincial and national initiatives. In the succeeding sections I will delve into what that might look like.